Stephen Orgel. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. xv+179 pp. ISBN 0 521 56056X Cloth; 0 521 568 420 Paper.
Anthony Dawson
University of British Columbia

Dawson, Anthony. "Review of Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.2 (September, 1997): 6.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-2/rev_daw2.html>.

  1. This is a short book with more interesting ideas and more cleverly marshalled information than most long ones. Written with magisterial ease, it ranges over the many questions that have been raised in the last decade or so concerning the boy actors, cross-dressing, homoeroticism, anti-theatricalism and the social position of women within "patriarchy," offering fresh readings of familiar problems. Stephen Orgel excels at asking basic questions. One of the book's most engaging features is its refusal to accept automatically what has become the standard line in most recent accounts of these issues. Is it really true, for example, that women did not appear on the English stage during the period? The answer is no. Not only that, women's work was much more varied than is commonly acknowledged: citing material from social historians, Orgel shows that women were active members of guilds and worked in a wide variety of trades; nor were they as restricted in either their manners or their behavior as standard historicist accounts, inflected by feminist insistences, would have us believe.

  2. Such issues are raised as part of a general argument that ideology and social practice need to be kept distinct, that actual behaviour was multiple, complex and variegated and hence not subject to generalizations about such matters as the position of women "within patriarchy." In some respects, Orgel makes clear, women may have been the "Other," but in many cases "it is not at all clear . . . who are 'us' and who are 'them'." There are "Others of many kinds in this theatre" (12). Indeed, the distinction between fathers and children (of either sex) was in many circumstances more important than that between men and women. Gender, in other words, has to be understood in relation to other distributions of power, whether of generation, class, nationality or whatever. As Orgel insists more than once in the book, in such matters context is everything ("everyone in this culture was in some respects a woman, feminized in relation to someone" [124]). Even on details this same interrogative approach persists and pays off: we are reminded that, contrary to the claims of most recent critics, Marlowe's Edward is NOT killed by a vicious anal rape, but is crushed to death under a table. Orgel is also, to my knowledge, the first person to ask why Viola takes on the name "Cesario" (he provides a provocative answer as well) and his exploration of why Rosalind's boy-name carries an "inescapable allusion" to the catamite "for whom Jove himself abandons his marriage bed" (57) goes beyond any previous one.

  3. Just because of the careful scrutiny Orgel gives to accepted ideas, it is disappointing when he himself slips into dogmatism. For example, his claim that Antonio and Sebastian in Twelfth Night are an "overtly homosexual couple" (51) is oversimplified -- the word "overtly" cutting against the careful scepticism on display in most of the book. Since a large part of Orgel's overall point is that male eroticism is free-flowing and metamorphic (i.e. attaches itself to both boys and women), and since the text provides no clear evidence of sexual relations between Sebastian and Antonio, such a statement seems gratuitous. Similarly, a number of blanket claims he makes about marriage in Shakespeare (17-18) need to be qualified. The statement that "marriage is a dangerous condition in Shakespeare" is just the kind of remark that he is in other places so good at deconstructing -- and counter-illustrations to a number of his listed examples can easily be adduced. In general, his specific interpretations of Shakespeare are often tendentious, and seem less convincing than the rest of the book. Take, for instance, the claim that the epilogue of As You Like It reveals that "the drama has not represented an erotic and heterosexual reality at all" (50). Again, in place of the shifting, elusive eroticism he traces elsewhere in the book, he here makes a dogmatic claim that seems untenable -- if heterosexual feeling has not been "represented" in the play, what are we to make of Rosalind's response to the wrestling match, of Silvius's mooning over Phoebe, of Orlando's love sonnets, Touchstone's pragmatic lust, or Oliver and Celia's quiet contentment? This raises a larger question of representation itself (the same issue comes up around his interpretation of the ending of Merchant later on [77]). One of the book's aims is to complicate the relation between representation and reality, but this is subverted by claims that "the play (As You Like It) insists that the wife is really a boy" (63). Of course the play doesn't do this at all; it encourages us to acknowledge that the actor playing the part of the wife at the beginning of the epilogue ("It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue . . . ") is "really" a boy after all, and indeed one who withdraws from the possibility of kissing men to make a curtsy (a gesture associated predominantly but not exclusively with women) before all the spectators. Shakespeare keeps the relations more fluid than criticism, even excellent criticism, is prone to do. And he does so by foregrounding the issue on which the theatre is founded -- that of "impersonation."

  4. Though the title of Orgel's book focuses on representation, performance and impersonation, he doesn't really examine this issue within the institutional arrangements and constraints of the theatre itself (the way, say, Michael Shapiro's recent book on theatrical cross-dressing does). This leaves something of a gap, since the specific question of how audiences responded to representations, to constructed "persons", is sometimes blurred (as I have suggested elsewhere, the oft-cited passage from Mary Wroth's Urania is an unreliable guide to audience reception of cross-dressed actors). Hence the kinds of confusion about who Rosalind "really" is. It seems important to remember that within the fiction created by stage representation, the normative response is a kind of "dual consciousness" wherein belief in the fictive reality of the personage sits side by side with a latent awareness of the performer. Orgel's eagerness to undermine the kinds of distinctions made by historical critics can be misleading when it extends to trying to erase the distinction between performer and personage.

  5. But at the same time, his pursuit of the conflicting and interweaving strands of cultural impersonation is so provocative and his development so elusive that one follows along fascinated. There is even a teasing quality to the strategy he adopts. He starts with the question that preoccupied him in an earlier essay, "Nobody's Perfect, or why did the English stage take boys for women?" The answers, as he now sees, are multiple and contradictory, a fact which gives him license to follow the strands in essayistic style. The result is a series of seductively deferred promises -- he keeps approaching and then pulling back from a definitive answer. The strategy works even while he tells us at the beginning that he seeks not "to answer a question, but to raise one; to address an exfoliating cultural issue of which we can give many kinds of accounts, but none sufficient to settle the matter." Thinking about gender in Shakespeare's culture, Orgel reminds us, inevitably involves thinking about the same question in our own, and hence formulating questions about early modern constructions involves us in our own conundrums. He illustrates this through a prefaced anecdote in which he deftly places his own theatrical cross-dressing as a student in the 1940s in a context that reveals the shifting nature of gender categories. We are then ready to be led through a round of investigations aimed at uncovering a mass of contradictory but illuminating evidence.

  6. The drift in the first part of the book is towards an understanding of "the anxieties attendant upon the institutionalization of masculinity . . . and to the sanctioned homoeroticism that played so large a role in the relationships between men" (30). Later, it is women, and especially the challenge they pose to the categorization to which they were subject, who take centre stage. The overall result is an enriched awareness of the fluidity of gender categories and roles, as illustrated, for example, by the metamorphic slippage in sexual desire from boys to women and back again -- this is "the other side of the [widespread cultural] fear that love effeminates" (42). So too the transvestite actor is a polyvalent sign: on the one hand, he is a conductor of cultural anxiety about powerful, desiring women; but he also represents and enables the potential masculinity of women, thereby helping to empower them by showing the value of "acting like a man" (106, 153). Indeed, femininity itself becomes associated, in a fruitful paradox, with man-like behaviour. Such major themes are buttressed by a number of exemplary and thoughtful sketches of such matters as contradictions in anatomical theory happily accommodated by unfazed theorists (Thomas Browne for one); the history of the castrati; the legal status of, and cultural tolerance for, pederasty ("the love of men for men in this culture appears less threatening that the love of men for women" [49]); the apprentice system within the theatre companies and the society generally (the relations between masters and servants cutting across potentially erotic relations); women voters; the fashion among the highest ladies of the land for masculine attire and the parallel fascination for dressing heroes as women; and finally a triptych of biographical portraits of extraordinary women who knew how to work the system for their advantage (presented to counter the common view among historical critics that women were excluded from the public world). While much of the material here has been gathered from secondary sources, there is no doubt about the brilliant selectiveness of Orgel's scholarship and the inventive uses to which he puts it. It is, in the end, a pleasure not to be offered a single explanation of the enigma of gender; the book's interrogative style, thematic complexity, and engaging deployment of historical material give us a richer picture than any totalized account.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1997-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(JD, PB, LH, RGS, 11 September 1997)